After another sold out season in the Melbourne Fringe Festival, comedian and community organiser Maxwell J Smith looks ahead to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and writes about how our movements and campaigns need art, creativity and laughter.
Activist Emma Goldman was once attributed with saying:
If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.
It’s the same for me and comedy. If I can’t laugh, the fascists have already won.
If you care about social and environmental justice, chances are you, or people you work and volunteer with, could use a bit of laughter. Humour is so important to our psychological well being, especially when we face difficult and overwhelming challenges. Sometimes, the medicine we need is for someone to speak truth to the things we think and care about, while being wildly funny.
Whether you want to be a professional comedian or a community organiser, it’s hard to deny the value of comedic training and a humorous sensibility. Being funny definitely makes me better at my job as a campaigner and organiser. In Rules for Radicals, the pragmatic radical Saul Alinsky argues that a sense of humour is a key attribute for community organisers:
The organiser, searching with a free and open mind void of certainty, hating dogma, finds laughter not just a way to maintain [their] sanity but also a key to understanding life. Essentially, life is a tragedy; and the converse of tragedy is comedy… Humour is essential to a successful tactician, for the most potent weapons known to [people] are satire and ridicule. – Saul Alinsky
So, to paraphrase the dude: Comedy comes from curiosity about the world, paired with a passion to celebrate the good and improve the bad. Laughing about the world is arguably one of the keys to surviving it. Finding the comedy in a neoliberal, rapidly warming world does not diminish the seriousness of the systemic injustices we collectively face. Rather, it is a tool through which to take back power, and create new narratives and frames.
When I was 17, I started performing standup comedy. It made sense to me. I loved acting and performing on stage, and my friends said I was pretty funny. But my standup career initially lasted just a few short years. When I was 20 (around the time Kevin Rudd and our federal government walked away from action on climate change) I became politicised, turned to volunteering and became an activist. I thought I had to be serious all the time. How could I continue to make trivial humour when I knew the world was on fire? I taught myself to be serious and only pursue action that I perceived as the most strategic and effective in creating change. I failed to realise that one does not have to be humourless in order to be strategic.
Without the light of laughter, I snowballed into depression and anger. Writing and performing comedy became a difficult chore. I quit when I realised that the jokes I was hearing and writing didn’t match my social values and weren’t helping to make a meaningful difference in the world. Looking back, I have massive regrets about this decision. Yes, the planet is on fire, and the money-making 1% of capitalist overlords own more resources than the 99% of actual human people with souls, but making myself feel awful about it wasn’t going to change anything. I disenfranchised myself from enjoying life.
Years later, a colleague of mine recommended Belina’s Raffy’s course Sustainable Standup, and I enrolled with a few friends. Belina’s ethos is about empowering people who care about the big issues of the world to connect with, and communicate, agency and hope through comedy.
Sustainable Standup starts with the question: “What do I care about and want to say that isn’t being said in the world?” This question helped me to rediscover my voice. From there, and with Belina’s guidance, I was able to apply some basic comedy techniques to make it positive again and find the humour in it.
Some of the techniques include:
- Identifying the things you love and the things you hate, then finding the things you hate about the things you love and vice versa. Attitude, conflict and absurdity make a hilarious combo.
- Getting down to specificity. What is the specific quality that makes something weird, scary, annoying, or fun?
- Boiling a rant down to a short setup and punchline.
- The rule of three. Lists are funnier in threes, where the third thing is a standout. Eg. Apple, Banana, Coal.
- Act outs – don’t just describe the funny thing, act it out!
- Mixes – using metaphor to escalate the absurdity.
Three sold-out festival show seasons and many gigs later, here I am writing this article.
My friend Tim Lo Surdo and I started our own comedy brand, Inconvenient Comedy. Our mission is to make comedy that is inclusive and uplifting, that never punches down, and that deals with big important issues. Our tag-line is: “Comedians saving the world, one stand-up set at a time”. All Inconvenient Comedy performers are people who deliver stand-up comedy with passion, positivity and a strong commitment to purpose.
We see comedy as an expression of the possible, rather than simply a reflection of the world as it is. Comedy is about values. It is a way to hold truth to power. It is a way to explore, grow, change, open our minds and open our eyes.
We practice comedy as a collective way to exercise our muscles of positivity, inclusivity, resilience and action, and to take a break from negativity, isolation, pessimism and inertia.
Our key stage rule is: no punching down. This means no racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, body-shaming, job-shaming, etc. We punch up heaps though: governments, corporations, the fossil fuel industry, white supremacy, patriarchy – they’re all in the firing line!
An Inconvenient Comedy Show
Our 2019 Melbourne Fringe Festival show was called An Inconvenient Comedy Show. We decided to call it this in reference to a particular film that motivated a lot of people to take action on climate change: Ice Age 2 – The Meltdown.
Without trying to ruin the joke, one simple technique for laughter generation is the unexpected, absurd punchline – in this case, that we learnt to care about climate change from watching a cartoon. That’s ridiculous! The real reason I care about climate change is because I’m a ranga. Climate change is a life or death situation for me, specifically. Rangas everywhere are going extinct, and I could be next.
We ran An Inconvenient Comedy Show as a fundraiser and in just one week of shows donated $4000 to Justice for Tanya Day – Remember Her Name, who have campaigned successfully to remove the racist and discriminatory law of public drunkenness from the Victorian criminal code and for an inquest to investigate the role of systemic racism in Aunty Tanya’s death. Remember what I said earlier about being strategic, effective AND funny? Well, the defence rests.
My recommendations for anyone thinking about giving comedy a try:
- Start writing. Write down everything and anything you find funny, whenever you think about it. These ideas will eventually form the basis for your performance material.
- Organise a crew. Find at least one friend, and preferably more friends, (maybe in a class or at a gig) who you can write, rehearse and perform with. Like anything else, comedy is best as a collective activity. Believe it or not, laughter gets even better when you can share it with others. Your comedy will come along in leaps and bounds when you can test it, riff about it, and work to improve it with people you trust.
- Enroll in a class. But do your research first to find the right one for you. Classes are great ways to gain confidence, learn new skills, and get in practice. The important thing is finding a space that is a safe, supportive place. There are courses exclusively for non-men, queer folk, and for people of colour. Belina Raffy’s Sustainable Standup was my ticket to dream. Maybe improv or sketch comedy is more your thing. Or maybe you want to become a clown. There are courses for that, too.
- Start gigging. Open mic nights are everywhere. They’re all around us. You’re literally surrounded by open mic nights. Take at least one friend for support.
- Know that you will fail at first. That’s fine! Some people won’t get your jokes and some people just don’t laugh out loud. Everybody bombs on stage sometimes. And I mean everybody. The important thing is that you try, reflect and ultimately learn from the experience.
- RAW Comedy, part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, is the biggest national open mic competition in the world. It gave me an opportunity to perform in front of big crowds. My advice is that you do at least 6 months of other open mic gigs first so you can hone your material and performance before you get up in front of a big crowd. The exception to the rule of “comedy is better with more people” is bombing in front of a big crowd. When you bomb with a small crowd, it’s par for the course. With a big crowd, it hurts that little bit more.
- Have fun! You don’t have to be good at art in order to gain enjoyment from it. Creative hobbies are meant to be outlets, so you stress less even if you suck at it.
Even if you’re not thinking about starting a new hobby or launching a career in standup comedy, I encourage you to have a go at incorporating laughter in your social change work. It will be good for you and the people around you, so you should have no problem recruiting them to join the revolution.
About the Author
Maxwell Smith is a campaigner and organiser at Environmental Justice Australia, a lead facilitator of The Change Agency’s Community Organising Fellowship and one half of the comedy production company, Inconvenient Comedy.
- Check out shows at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
- Read about the book A Comedian and An Activist Walk Into a Bar: The (Serious) Role of Comedy in Social Justice
- Read Creative activism 101: An antidote for despair
- Listen to TED Radio: Can Social Change Start With Laughter?